By John J. Metzler
PARIS — It’s never polite to question the deteriorating human rights situation in China but let’s do it anyway.
The hidden and systematic repression of ethnic Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province and the high profile crackdown on pro-demonstrators in Hong Kong, many of them Christian, are both rooted in the same glaring reality; China’s Communist Party, does not allow dissent.
The regime’s crackdowns in Xinjiang are rooted largely in religious and cultural repression of the Muslim minority, usually under the specious guise of combating terrorism. Beijing’s atheistic state does not permit genuinely practiced religion whether it’s Islam or Roman Catholicism. Thus, over the past few years more than one million Muslims have been detained in remote “reeducation camps.”
The practice evokes the dark Maoist era but in the best Orwellian tradition is cynically rebranded as “vocational training.” Indeed. The existence of the detention camps has been painstakingly documented by human rights organizations and scholars but until recently has been politely overlooked by the Foreign Ministries of most countries. It’s part of what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as “One of the worst human rights crisis of our time.”
Recently there was a slight diplomatic sea change at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Twenty-two countries called on China to end “mass arbitrary detention” of Uighurs and to permit international observers access to the network of camps.
Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan and much of the European Union joined in this unprecedented censure of China. The USA could not formally participate since Washington pulled out of this Council last year. Nonetheless, in May the U.S. accused Beijing in placing more than a million Chinese Muslims in “concentration camps.”
Not to be outdone, just days later 37 of Beijing’s comrades and friends fired back a rhetorical broadside not only praising China’s human rights record but commending its regime for its “counter terrorism measures in Xinjiang” by setting up vocational education and training centers.
As you would expect the usual list of suspects lauded China’s actions including Cuba, Russia, Burma (Myanmar) North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. Beyond the predictable sycophants are added a number of Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Beijing’s African comrades included Angola, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Yet here’s a morally glaring contradiction. If Saudi Arabia claims to be the protector of Muslims and their interests, why then support China’s religious repression of the Islamic faith? You guessed it; it’s all about trade and business.
Just last year the People’s Republic of China signed $28 billion infrastructural and investment deals in the Middle East. We wonder if there are any vocational training ventures? Hong Kong presents the other side of the coin. Though Xinjiang remains landlocked and out of the global media gaze, Hong Kong presents an accessible, vibrant and media focused society which is increasingly threatened as an “Special Autonomous Region” of China.
In 1997 when the former British Crown Colony reverted to Beijing’s political control, the Anglo/China deal ensured that the region’s civil, economic and political system would not change for 50 years.
When I was in Hong Kong just after the handover, the operative political rationalization was, “China will not kill the Golden Goose. If it does it has only one meal, but if it lets the Goose alone, it continues to harvest Golden eggs.” In other words, Hong Kong’s prosperity was the gift that kept on giving to the PRC’s own bottom line.
Political and press freedoms have been steadily proscribed by Beijing’s intimidation. Hong Kong has prospered over 22 years despite PRC rule; indeed, this small island group off the China coast is all about commerce and thriving global markets. But it is Beijing’s rulers who are treading very gingerly in its widening crackdown on pro-democracy forces and largely peaceful demonstrations which after two months appear to be reaching a crescendo.
Interestingly France’s Le Monde reports, “The Christian churches are at the heart of the revolt.” Now amid chaotic clashes at Hong Kong’s huge international airport, the crisis has severely strained China’s patience and presented a “loss of face” to Xi Jinping’s autocracy.
Beijing’s security apparat remains divided over the possible use of lethal force. Hong Kong’s human rights showdowns in the light of “One Country, Two Systems” mantra are carefully monitored in Taiwan where a democratic system is directly threatened by Beijing’s blusterous diktat to rejoin with the Mainland.
Though the sanguinary lessons of Tiananmen Square in 1989 are glossed over by the West in a bid to do business with Beijing, the ominous fact remains that the communist Chinese state does not permit dissent. Hong Kong take note.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]